Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Heaven: not the end of the world II

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth
Our heavenly story begins at the beginning, as all good stories do,* way back when God created the heavens and the earth. Wait a minute - the earth, yes; but 'the heavens'? Plural? And the heavens are created too? So where was God before he made heaven to live in?

It is relatively common for many Christians (at least in my experience) to conceive of 'heaven' as a place outside of time, where God dwells and to where we will escape once this temporally conditioned creation reaches its use by date. For some, it is simply a really nice place, where we go when we die, a realm of bliss and reunions, of negativity negated. Images of harps and clouds are routinely ridiculed from pulpit and stand-up mike, yet they remain the default for a culture without any conception of what else might replace them. This series will attempt a re-reading of a number of the key texts in order to feed our imagination on solid food.

Heaven's above!
Starting at Genesis 1, we come across the first and probably most common biblical use of the term 'heaven'. 'Heaven' or 'the heavens' refers to the expanse of sky visible by night and day above us. We'd also use 'the sky' (indeed some translations use 'sky' from verse 8 onwards). There is not necessarily any great precision in this usage, no careful distinctions between stratosphere and ionosphere; it's simply a phenomenological term for what you see when you look up. Heaven in this most basic sense is quite visible, quite changible, quite physical (at least in a gaseous kind of way). It is the realm of both birds and stars. Out of the six hundred odd times the term is used in the Bible, this is by far the most common.

When paired with 'earth' as it is in verse 1 (and 2.1, not to mention many other times), it is a common hebraic way of referring to 'everything' or 'the universe'.

And when God finished making everything, he saw that everything was good, indeed considered as a harmonious whole very good. The universe is not divided up into good bits and bad bits, into nasty matter and beautiful ideas, into heaven and hell. It is not even earth versus heaven, but earth and heaven. Everything that is, is good.
NB However, this is not necessarily to say that everything was mathematically perfect.

Much more could be said about creation, and about the creator. But for the moment, I think this is the place from which to start.*

And of course, Genesis is all-too aware of the painful fact that this goodness is not the end of the story. There's much more to come.*It is possible, indeed often desirable, to start good theological stories from Christ. This is still to start at the beginning, since he is the beginning. Rest assured, for the theologically fastidious, Christ is indeed the centre of this series. For we can't understand heaven without him - nor him without heaven...
Series: I; II; IIa; III; IV; V; VI; VII; VIII; IX; X; XI; XII; XIII; XIV; XV; XVI.

10 comments:

michael jensen said...

Yes, tov tov ie very good is a very different idea to 'perfection'... there is still a lot of use of the word 'perfect' in christian discourse to describe the original state of the creation. But there was so much gardening to do!

Cyberpastor said...

As a fan of perfection, albeit eschatological, I am interested to hear your thoughts on goodness.

How does the theology change when the observer can place herself in the heavens?

Rob said...

Beautiful job with the placement of the pictures. The lush trees as the "very good", and the bare branches as the foreboding image of the fall that was to come.

Thank you for livening up your blog with these pictures and not diminshing the content! Keep up the good work.

byron said...

Yes, goodness is not perfection. Creation had a telos (goal) from the start - humanity was created with a task or two (really the same thing viewed from two angles methinks). Even without the fall, perfection would have meant change. At the very least, this problematises the notion of "changelessness" as lying at the heart of what is good.

And yes, we do not do theology from the heavens (I assume you mean David that to do such heavenly theology is to do it from a privileged viewpoint 'above' the messiness of our everyday lives?). Again, even without the fall, we would do earthly theology: from our limited fallible perspective as creatures.

Rob: thanks - for some reason I've found I really like pics of things (trees, buildings, people) silhouetted against a striking sky. Earth and heavens. FYI: the lush trees are on the via Appia into Roma, the others are in the middle of a wonderful circle in Bath (I didn't think it was fair to ask people to guess locations this time...)

John said...

The entire "created" universe is a moment to moment universal play of light. An endless play of changes in which ALL forms disintegrate and die or pass away or are transformed. The world of klik-klak pattern patterning which is completely indifferent to the survival or maintenance of any form--human or otherwise.
What is "heavenly" about that?

These related references give a unique perspective of "creation", "heaven" and Real God.

1. www.dabase.net/dht6.htm
2. www.dabase.net/dht7.htm
3. www.dabase.net/creamyth.htm
4. www.dabase.net/spacetim.htm
5. www.dabase.net/christmc2.htm

Cyberpastor said...

I was actually thinking on a far more mundane level in terms of how one things about the heavens once you are physically able to get beyond what the Hebrews writers could only look up at.

byron said...

Ah, I see, heavenly theology. Well famously Yuri Gagarin, the first human to orbit the earth said, ""I looked and looked but I didn't see God".* President Nixon on the phone to Armstrong and Aldrin said, "because of what you have done, the heaven's have become part of man's world...". Aldrin in his personal allowance of eight ounces took with him a tiny chalice, a thimbleful of wine and a tiny wafer and celebrated communion of the lunar surface (or so claims here)!

* Some argue that it was not Gagarin, a baptised Christian, who said this, but Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev.

But what does all this have to do with heavenly theology from the heavens? Thoughts?

byron said...

John, I deleted a previous post from you because it was basically all links. Thanks this time for including some content along with the links.

I'm curious - are you then like the universe in being "completely indifferent to the survival or maintenance of any form--human or otherwise"?

byron said...

Re goodness vs perfection, see also here.

psychodougie said...

one of the strong creationist arguments is that evolution involves change, whereas in the garden there was no death; for dinosaurs to have been around before humans would have meant that the perfect garden, in eden, was built on a foundation of millenia of death, destruction, decay.
That many animals can be vegetarian, and the fall is the sole reason for any meat-eating whatsoever are some of the premises forming that worldview.
but, as michael says re tov tov, and you say along the lines of work and labour, for creation to have been very good does not imply complete perfection.
unless of course a world built on death, dog-eat-dog (or dinosaur-eat-dinosaur) world, was what God had in mind in a very good world.
sorry - just rambling now!